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  • Writer's pictureBethany Crystal

Learning by osmosis: Or, how toddlers learn the rules of slides

How to use a slideI spent an hour today on the playground with my daughter while taking my last few work calls of the day. It was basically happy hour for kids -- post-school, pre-dinner. In short, a madhouse. Kids up to 10 years old ran circles around each other, sprinted up and down the rubberized hills and ladders and slides. They drenched themselves in water and then sprinted back to do it again. It was loud and raucous. While on my calls, I trailed my toddler around the playground, up and down the hills and ladders and bridges. (Mostly to make sure she didn’t accidentally catapult herself off the top of something.) Like a lot of playgrounds, this one had two slide concepts. One for “little kids” -- a slide starter kit, really -- a half-sized version -- and one for “big kids” -- the real deal slide, the tall and scary thing that everyone came there for. My 18-month-old kid decided the big kid slide was much more her speed and I watched her squeeze herself in between the 4, 6, and 8-year-old kids all lining up and racing past her to take their turns. At first when I saw her head toward the big kids slide, I thought about steering her back to safety toward the pint-sized version. But she seemed to implicate that she knew what she was doing so I decided to give her an “at bat” with the big kids. She stood about a foot from the edge as two, three, then four screaming kids cut in front of her and jettisoned themselves to the bottom. I wanted to tell the other kids, “Hey, watch out, there’s a baby here. Give her space.” But I was surprised to see what happened next. She waited at the top, patiently allowing the line of kids grew shorter until she saw a window for herself to take her turn. Then she cautiously and carefully sat down. At this point even 1-2 other kids decided to essentially jump over her and go down the slide. But she wasn’t deterred or annoyed. She just waited until the last kid exited the bottom of the slide. And then she took her turn. As I watched this happen the first time, I thought, “Huh, that was lucky that she didn’t collide with anyone at the bottom.” But then it happened a second time, and a third time, and a fourth -- and I realized: She’s learned slide protocols. She knows to wait her turn in line and to only go down once the coast is clear.


Learning by osmosisOn my journey in the shadow of my toddler, I supervised this repeated “slide loop” at least a half-dozen times. She’d dutifully stand at the top, wait her turn, go down the slide, then scamper up the wall to do it again. This is the kind of squishy stuff you can’t really learn without lived experiences: How playground rules work. As adults we have this all the time, too. When to put your phone away when out at a restaurant with a friend, what direction to face in an elevator so you don’t freak out the other passengers, how to order a bagel without getting an eye roll. It’s through context clues and observing others’ behaviors that we can pick up on things ourselves. And sometimes -- even without talking about the thing -- we learn how to do the thing. This is learning by osmosis. Just, being present in the world around you enough to pick up on the nuances and context clues of social norms and behaviors all around you in different settings. The nice thing about learning by osmosis is that every new setting is a brand new petri dish to learn something new. Fancy clubs teach you how to make introductions with proper salutations and last names at fancy clubs. Dog walkers teach you how to always ask if a dog is friendly before reaching out for a pet. Rug shops teach you how to ask to “be shown” the rug that’s six-layers deep into a rug pile. Art galleries teach you how to blatantly avoid eye contact in order to earn respect. At movie theatres you always know go back for the free refill right before the show starts, at Trader Joe’s the pro move is to get there on a weekend morning if you want to beat the line, and in board meetings, you better let whoever just asked that question get to the follow-up question they really want to know before you interrupt them or change course. These are of course things you can read in rulebooks, or maybe blog posts, of course. But that’s not nearly as much fun, or as impressionable as learning it yourself. For instance, maybe last week I read in a guidebook that “Tenants must book conference rooms in advance.” But I’ll tell you what -- that guidance didn’t really stick until I got kicked out of a room with my team yesterday after we skirted the rules. It’s no different from learning the rules of slides. There’s a lineup, everybody waits their turn, and you only go down when the coast is clear. This, by the way, was also why the older kids didn’t seem to be bothered by a baby trying to play alongside them. She may have been slower, and maybe a little in the way, but at least she was playing by the same rules. I've been wondering a lot about the lack of osmosis that many of us have experienced for this past year-and-a-half. If we're not spending time in different contexts, have we forgotten some of the rules? If we fail to launch ourselves into new environments, are we in some way holding back our own growth? What's the opportunity cost of mostly-virtual interactions in both social and professional contexts? What rules and social scripts are we "not" getting? I think it's about time for all of to push ourselves to get back onto the playground again. Even if that means re-learning the rules of slides.

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